Allied militaries and the world’s commercial satellite-fleet operators both need to establish a code of conduct to identify threats to their satellites and agree on how to counter them, government and industry representatives said.

Even NATO governments have no commonly accepted guidelines for what is permissible and what is not when protecting their orbital assets, and commercial operators sometimes refuse to disclose when they have suffered an in-orbit failure.

“What we need in the space world is something analogous to what is going on in the computer world. On the military side we have set up computer reporting centers,” said Tim Waugh, program manager for satellite communications at the 26-nation NATO C3 Agency. “That’s got to be done in the space world so that we have a clear idea of what we’re up against.”

In a theme highlighted repeatedly here March 8-9 during the SMi Mil Space 2006 conference, Waugh and other military and industry officials said there remains a wide gulf between many nations’ reliance on satellite assets and their strategy for protecting them.

“These platforms are sitting ducks,” said one European industry official whose company builds and operates satellites. “We need at least to be able to distinguish between normal failures and jamming, but our observation capabilities are very few. These satellites are blind and deaf.”

The conference did not settle on what strategy to adopt. Some suggested a United Nations-coordinated effort, along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to monitor who is doing what in space. Another official said recent experience has shown that the IAEA’s guidelines are often ignored by nations.

But Waugh insisted that some form of international agreement, perhaps starting with a limited number of governments, was needed to replace today’s anything-goes environment regarding space practice. “We definitely need an international cooperative effort to establish rules of the road,” he said.

The conference focused on military space policy but commercial practices also were cited, if only because of the growing dependence by military and other government agencies on commercial satellite services.

Frank R. Prautzsch, director of Network Centric Systems in Raytheon’s Rapid Initiatives Group in Marlborough, Mass., said commercial fleet owners need to do a better job of reporting their satellites’ on-board anomalies. As more information is collected, he said, all satellite-system owners — military, civil and commercial — would be better able to distinguish between a ground-based attack and a routine component failure.

“It is critical that all industry members report anomalies,” Prautzsch said. “I’ll be up front: Not all commercial companies report problems with their spacecraft. If we could have everybody act as a sensor, it would be a great first step. But there are companies that don’t tell what’s going on for fear of losing revenue or customer base.”

Klaus P. Doerpelkus, space initiatives manager for Europe and emerging markets for Cisco Systems’ Global Defense, Space and Security Group, said the technology permitting satellite owners to know more precisely what is happening with their satellites is on the way.

“Satellites one day will all be able to communicate together and we will need a common infrastructure for this — at Cisco, of course, we think it should be IP-based,” Doerpelkus said. “IP-based sensors could be put on satellites to monitor their health. Why not put a sensor on every solar cell? If a few go out you may have a normal event. If hundreds disappear, it could be something else.”

Waugh said NATO nations “have been asleep at the steering wheel in many respects” on the issue of protecting key space assets. “The political will to act was not there. But now it is building, and NATO is trying to increase its cooperation in this area.”